‘The fish rots from the head’

Musab Younis

It might seem bizarre to blame the murder of the French schoolteacher Samuel Paty on a nebulous conspiracy of leftist academics, given that the perpetrator, Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov, was an 18-year-old who had never been to university. But earlier this month in Le Monde, 100 French academics gave their backing to Jean-Michel Blanquer, the education minister, when he responded to the murder with a flood of invective against universities. ‘Islamo-leftism is wreaking havoc,’ he said. Paty’s murderer had been ‘conditioned by people who encourage’ a type of ‘intellectual radicalism’ and promote ‘ideas that often come from elsewhere’, i.e. from across the Atlantic. ‘The fish rots from the head,’ he added darkly.

Blanquer was following the example of the president of the republic. ‘Academia is guilty,’ Macron said in June, because ‘it has encouraged ethnicisation of the social question’, leading to the spread of ‘secessionist’ views. This ideological critique formed the basis for a recent law targeting ‘separatism’, one of the few government initiatives to have survived Covid-19. The academics writing to Le Monde after the murder of Samuel Paty agreed. They lamented the ‘racialist and “decolonial” ideologies (transferred from North American campuses)’ that are ‘feeding a hatred of “whites” and of France’. And they demanded the Ministry of Education ‘put in place measures to detect Islamist tendencies’ at universities, ‘to engage our universities in this fight for secularism and the Republic’.

These may appear to be interventions in a peculiarly French culture war: a combined spectre of ‘anti-white racism’, a ‘Muslim problem’ and pernicious American influence is, for many in France, an irresistible combination. But there are plenty of global parallels. In September, Donald Trump issued a directive to stop federal organisations delivering anti-bias training that drew on ‘critical race theory’ or ‘white privilege’ because they were ‘un-American propaganda training sessions’. In South Africa, Helen Zille, the former leader of the Democratic Alliance, has often attacked ‘critical race theory’, which she calls ‘a new set of ideas rooted in Frantz Fanon’s writings’. Last month, the UK women and equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, claimed in the House of Commons that teaching ‘elements of critical race theory’ in schools – in particular, ‘white privilege and inherited racial guilt’ – was illegal.

You could respond by pointing out the inaccuracy of these assertions. ‘Critical race theory’ isn’t a radical new academic doctrine, but the name given to a specific set of interventions in American legal theory that sought to show how racism could be entrenched in the law. The first annual Workshop on Critical Race Theory was held in 1989 and drew on research going back to the 1960s. Most contemporary scholars researching race and racism – whether writing about Shakespeare or the World Trade Organisation – don’t use the term ‘critical race theory’ to describe their work. The critical study of whiteness is a centuries-old tradition among black intellectuals, going back at least to Frederick Douglass. The term ‘white privilege’ was coined by Peggy McIntosh in 1988 (it is not new, did not come from critical race theory in American legal studies, and is not particularly reflective of current scholarship on whiteness). And, far from being taken over by scholarship on racism and postcolonialism, French academia has been famously hostile to it: graduate students interested in those topics have often had to emigrate. For a political project that targets intellectuals, though, these details are beside the point. The term ‘critical race theory’, like ‘postmodernism’, is now in the hands of its self-professed enemies, who are not especially interested in its relation to actually existing scholarship.

There’s nothing new about seeing universities as nurseries of radicalism. As the signatories of two open letters in response to Le Monde pointed out, ‘islamo-leftism’ sounds remarkably like ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’: both terms conjure a dubiously semitic, dangerously powerful minority in bed with left-wing intellectuals. In Britain, hostility to universities is so prevalent among Conservatives that it was recently described as the party’s ‘new Euroscepticism’ by Jo Johnson, the former universities minister. Erdoğan’s Turkey and Modi’s India – to take just two notable examples – have targeted university students and faculty in their campaigns of mastery over Kurdistan and Kashmir.

Many academics have risen to the defence of their colleagues. But some, like those who wrote to Le Monde, are doing the opposite: openly backing the suppression of bodies of research they don’t like. Eric Kaufmann, who teaches politics at Birkbeck, suggests ‘we should applaud’ Trump’s order banning critical race theory. In France, the Conference of University Presidents and the main students’ union, UNEF, condemned Blanquer’s remarks as ridiculous and irresponsible. But a right-wing students’ association, the Union Nationale Interuniversitaire, was delighted. It asked only that Blanquer go further. ‘Now that we agree on the Islamo-leftism of the UNEF and its hatred of everything that makes France,’ they said, ‘can we talk about the hundreds of thousands of euros of public subsidies that UNEF has been receiving for decades?’


  • 15 November 2020 at 12:35am
    Arthur Roy says:
    All well and good to describe these disturbing reactionary responses in France but to do so without mentioning even the possibility that Macron Inc is trying to steal a March (sic) on M. Le Pen is a bit like describing Jaws without mentioning the shark. Clearly, you will need a bigger boat.

  • 16 November 2020 at 9:18am
    Raul Zweiregen says:
    I think the authors of the Nov 1 newspaper-manifesto against colonial and decolonial studies not only try to construct an an internal enemy within the French academia that they label "islamo-gauchiste", they also refuse to see France as colonial power and wish to attribute the problems with colonial heritage to foreign powers. The quote "L’importation des idéologies communautaristes anglo-saxonnes, [...] sont une véritable menace pour nos universités. " to me says that France without US/UK academia would do fine. This is a way to shut eyes for problems in France and deflecting the search for solutions towards blaming hostile ideas orginating from out of France. Cheap and dishonest trick!

  • 16 November 2020 at 9:20am
    Paul Demarty says:
    > The term ‘white privilege’ was coined by Peggy McIntosh in 1988

    This is not actually true. White privilege (or white-skin privilege) was current in American Maoist circles at least as early as 1967-68 and continued to be a sore-point between different factions up to the mid-1970s and beyond (the reference I have of the top of my head is a polemic against the idea from 1975 entitled 'Carl Davidson: the creature from the "white skin privilege" lagoon' When the New Communist Movement collapsed, mainly due to Nixon's deal with the Chinese, many of its luminaries wound up as liberal academics of one sort or another, and some individuals form a kind of bridge between the 68ers and the CRT people (Noel Ignatiev, for example, who wrote a famous article on the 'white blindspot' in the late 1960s and went on to found the Race Traitor journal).

    Frankly I'm amazed that these right-wing blowhards don't make more of this connection, preferring instead to raise the phantom of 'cultural Marxism'. I suppose it is because white privilege theory has largely outlived the fissile Maoist sects that used to argue over it (though the organisation that produced the article linked above still exists as a bizarre personality cult), and its modern proponents are plainly not Maoists, whereas they *could* be secret initiates of some pseudo-Masonic conspiracy of 'cultural Marxists'.

    • 16 November 2020 at 11:54am
      Gardiner Linda says: @ Paul Demarty
      As it happens, my office was down the hall from Peggy McIntosh's in the mid-1980s, when she was presenting various draft versions of her 'white privilege' paper, and I discussed it with her on many occasions. She was indeed aware that the term wasn't a new one, and she also credited her black feminist colleagues for pointing out examples of said privilege that she hadn't been aware of. In group presentations she invited people to add examples and to critique the paper - the chief criticism being that many of her examples were not "race"-specific but were equally true for LGBT and other non-dominant groups. With little modification it could be called 'white straight middle-class privilege'. The text was eventually published as a 'working paper' and intended as a jumping-off point for discussion, not some kind of final word on the subject - which it's since been unfairly attacked for claiming to be.
      Also as it happens, after moving from the UK to the US and living there for many years (where I taught feminist theory among other things), I moved to France and am now a French citizen. I can certainly testify to the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of many French academics (whatever their politics), and also to the conviction that 'becoming French' requires rejecting your former culture - that French culture is a precious gift bestowed on the deserving but benighted immigrant. Anecdotally, I recall having an argument some time ago with one of the people who signed the Manifesto of 100, who was convinced that living in France meant recognizing that French culture and values were superior and superseded everything else. (This was in the context of a government proposal to offer Arabic classes in the schools, which he vehemently opposed.) But when I said that I didn't see why I should reject Shakespeare and Purcell, or for that matter the Beatles and Martin Amis, he was quite taken aback - he knew perfectly well that he was arguing with a white 'Anglo-Saxon', but his entire position presupposed that the newly French person was Arab, African, or from some other place with no 'culture' to speak of. A purely colonial attitude, as Raul Zweiregen points out. He literally had no answer to my objection, since he knew perfectly well that he couldn't say 'Oh, but I didn't mean you' without exposing himself as a hypocrite.
      Of course not everyone is such a die-hard, and the whole subject generates such a range of opinions that it's very hard to generalise. But the fortress mentality certainly gets a lot of space in the media.

    • 18 November 2020 at 9:13am
      XopherO says: @ Gardiner Linda
      You said, but apparently don't really believe it. It is very difficult to generalise on 'French culture'. I have not met the attitudes you describe, but then I do not work in French academia. Let's face it all academias are rariefied places, in the UK too. What I like about France is that the French indeed do have a culture to care for (at all levels) but they don't demand that other countries bow to it or imitate it (not even for cuisine these days). The do not say things like 'best in the world', 'world-beating' 'best NHS in the world', 'we British are the best', and indeed we all know that 'English' is a somewhat empty concept. Such expressions would be likely to get the traditional raspberry 'cocorico!' I am glad to be free of all that 'British' tosh. So is my French wife.

  • 17 November 2020 at 5:41am
    Ewelina Pepiak says:
    The assumption that the Muslim population in France, still largely and wrongly considered non-French or essentially foreign, needed 'intellectuals' to gain Agency and Formulare theory struggle is perhaps the Riot cause of the imaginary republic vs. communautarisme conflict. Where thé educational system revealed itself as hostile, Muslim Brotherhood ans other duch organisations provided. The colonial bias of treating multi-ethnic ans multicultural population like children devis of any intellectual agency is prevalent, as Macron's remarks show

    • 17 November 2020 at 11:18pm
      haroldsdodge says: @ Ewelina Pepiak
      Indeed Ewelina. Muslims in France don't need intellectuals to gain agency. They're quite capable of decapitating teachers (and stabbing churchgoers, murdering cartoonists, gunning down concert goers and driving trucks into crowds of tourists) all on their own. As you rightly say, it is "colonial bias" to suggest they need any help in these ventures, given their track record.

    • 18 November 2020 at 1:02pm
      ChrisK says: @ haroldsdodge
      Is it "Muslims in France"/general that do so? What, all of them?
      And they're going to stop if academics stop researching race issues and colonialism?
      I somehow doubt both these claims. The latter sounds infantile to me, while the former sounds racist quite frankly.

  • 17 November 2020 at 6:43pm
    neil blackhaw says:
    so decapitating a teacher is just collateral damage?

    • 17 November 2020 at 10:07pm
      Doc TH says: @ neil blackhaw
      Hmm...a few stabbings and beheadings, a few shootings, some running over folks with a truck, a few bombings, - and you want to make a big deal over them Neil?

    • 17 November 2020 at 11:19pm
      haroldsdodge says: @ neil blackhaw
      Well said Neil. Far be it from any of us to suggest that the fact that an innocent teacher had his head hacked off is anything more than a minor detail.

    • 17 November 2020 at 11:27pm
      haroldsdodge says: @ Doc TH
      You've put your finger on it Doc. We have to stop getting ourselves in a tizzy every time a rock concert is turned into a bloodbath or a warm evening stroll along the Promenade des Anglais ends with dozens of skulls being crushed by a 20 ton juggernaut. It's precisely because we fixate on such trivia, all the while ignoring real problems like Macron's choice of words, that we're in this mess.

    • 18 November 2020 at 1:08pm
      ChrisK says: @ neil blackhaw
      Collateral damage of what - researching/teaching race issues/colonialism?
      Yes, I guess that the perpetrator was fully immersed in the study of both - that must explain everything.
      If only we could stop that kind of research/teaching, then the world would be in peace at last...

  • 17 November 2020 at 6:51pm
    Edward Luttwak says:
    Retrospective analysis of Brigate Rosse terrorism in Italy revealed the indispensible enabling role of academics (mostly sociologists in northern universities) in pre-legitimizing their violence & then misrepresenting it as a response to objective socio-economic realities, which really did distract and divert the country's response for years.
    In the Paty murder the case, there is no need to wait for years because of the extraordinary Le Monde investigation
    It reveals that the reported facts (girl in tears reports seeing naked Muhammad, outraged parent calls on community support ...) were 100% false (girl did not attend school that day; the father was in the agitation business...) . It is true that it was in the NYT /Washington Post that the story became "French police kills Muslim" but islamo-gauchisme really exists as is apparent most obviously in the received & transmitted history of Algeria: in which the Algerians killed by the Paras receive equal time with the Algerians killed by the FLN insurgents & then by the FLN in power , thereby equating 1 to 20, and then 1 to 100 ...

  • 17 November 2020 at 7:47pm
    John Lincoln says:
    Fish don't rot from the head, they actually rot from the guts first. So don't blame Macron, the Universities or even Trump. Blame the fat white blokes in National Rally in France and in MAGA baseball caps in the US spurred on by Fox news and Facebook.

  • 17 November 2020 at 10:38pm
    gibbons50 says:
    I agree with the first part of the blog completely.

  • 17 November 2020 at 11:02pm
    haroldsdodge says:
    I must commend the author for not even pretending to think that the murder of an innocent teacher was a bad thing. All too often such writers feel the need to pay lip service to the idea that decapitating a blameless and defenceless man is somehow something we should discourage. By contrast, Mr Younis keeps his focus laser-like on the real scandal, namely the "right-wing" agenda (apparently secularism is now a right-wing phenomenon) of Macron and his supporters. Indeed, that's what matters here. All credit to Mr Younis for avoiding the temptation to pretend that the hacking off of a teacher's head was anything other than a minor detail.

  • 17 November 2020 at 11:03pm
    su fernandez says:
    Professor Younis is correct, one 'could respond by pointing out the inaccuracy of these assertions'. But one can also point out the inaccuracy of most Americans' understanding of 'intersectionality', which also began as a legal point but now has dispersed throughout higher education and seeped into the culture at large to mean everything or nothing. Pointing out the inaccuracy does little in either case because the mare is out of the barn, the box already opened, the lid off, and there's no restraining the people who now own and use these concepts. These are just two of many cases over the past forty or so years in which specific or highly technical or deeply theoretical arguments in the universities arguably have dispersed in facile ways and have done so with problematic consequences. In my view, all of us in the universities, whether in the US, the UK, or France, need to acknowledge our responsibilities for such consequences, not blame some other 'not us' for them. Thank you.

  • 18 November 2020 at 1:09am
    eeffock says:
    "The term ‘white privilege’ was coined by Peggy McIntosh in 1988 (it is not new)"

    in point of fact, the phrase 'white skin privilege' is used in the 1967 paper, 'White Blindspot' presented by Noel Ignatin and Ted Allen to the Students for a Democratic Society (sds), in which they cite prior use by WEB DuBois and K Marx, among others. So earlier than 1988.

  • 18 November 2020 at 4:03pm
    Patrick Turner says:
    What is emphatically true is that the political right is waging a dedicated culture war on forms of identity politics whose origins are in decolonial movements (and their Third Worldist supporters), the social movements of the 1960s and the varieties of postmodern academic radicalism found in Anglosphere universities from the 1970s down to the present. What is also true is that various strands of the political and academic left have been consistent and vociferous critics of said identity politics. Indeed, one refrain in this criticism has been that the political deference demanded for particularistic perspectives (i.e. strategic essentialism) jibes with the identitarian culturalism of conservative thought. Another is that the insistence that universal solidarities efface 'differences that make a difference' jibes with neoliberal appeals to niche identities.

    What has also been consistently criticised from the left is the moralism that that bringing the testimony and actions of oppressed subjects under the purview of rational and critical scrutiny is a form of symbolic violence. And it is precisely this that the authors of the Le Monde screed have (albeit in a manner that would benefit from far more nuance) in their sights. The attack on the academic left from the right is clearly opportunistic, disingenuous and would be plainly laughable ('Cultural Marxism' and Adorno, Horkheimer et al as the granddaddy's of 'woke intersectionalists'? Please..) were it not part of an agenda to administer the last rites to public higher education.

    But that doesn't mean that there is not a real problem on parts of the left (both liberal and radical), one that has metastasised over the last decade or so. Where free speech, schismatic moralising, and apologetics for regressive tendencies (like Islamism) in the name of antiracism and anti-imperialism are concerned, this left has not covered itself in glory and is deserving of criticism - from the left.

    Those like Yousab Younis who push back against calls for academic censorship are absolutely right. The suggestion that the postmodern Anglo left thought leads inexorably to tacit support for Islamist violence is crude to say the least. But whilst the actual ideas are for more variegated than their critics would allow, they can be interpreted and deployed in a form of political discourse that is itself censorious, demanding ideological conformity.

    The defence of the right to teach these ideas in universities is mounted in the name of an emancipatory politics. Rightly so. The inability, however, to register that there has been/is anything problematic in their real-world uptake in universities and beyond, or to acknowledge the validity of any criticism - indeed to find only confirmation of the original charge in said criticism - is the lacuna in the defence.

  • 18 November 2020 at 4:42pm
    Margaret Tudeau-clayton says:
    This article is merely a rehash of knee jerk reactions circulating in France. For an edifying perspective that really gets to intellectual grips with the issues I recommend to both author and readers: Pierre-Andre Taguieff, L'imposture décoloniale. Science imaginaire et pseudo-antiracisme (2020). It is a book that should be translated into English!!

  • 20 November 2020 at 5:04am
    Ali Syed says:
    It is regrettable that poor Paty had to die Unnecessarily at the hand of an 18 year old boy. The French establishment and it’s institutions must realise that it’s not freedom of expression to mock or unnecessarily bring out in any shape or form that which others hold dearly as sacred. Why can’t these trolls & hacks, these mediocre mules show such zest for free speech where atrocities are committed, lives taken for fun in the dark of night in Afghanistan and Myanmar or some other place in the Middle East. I don’t think so. As it is the French are jokers on the world stage.

    • 22 November 2020 at 3:53pm
      bikethru says: @ Ali Syed
      Murderously demanding that you not be mocked is as bad as murderously attacking a wedding party in Afghanistan by drone. Anyone who tries to excuse the knifeman or the drone is an opponent of civilisation. Not of "Muslim civilisation" or "Western civilisation". Just of civilisation.

  • 20 November 2020 at 12:52pm
    Robert Jones says:
    Reading this in light of yesterdays developments of branding Muslim children with ID numbers and holding Muslim leaders at ransom, the irony that a piece describing the reactionary politics in France is attracting a bunch of reactionary comments doesn't escape me.

    Thanks for the excellent article Prof. Younis

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